You Can’t Put a Bandage on Grief

When my daughters were little, they often bruised or scraped themselves in the course of everyday play. A kiss from Mommy or Daddy (and perhaps a Sharpie-drawn smiley face on a Band-Aid — whether necessary or not) was all it took to make things okay again.

Sometimes other tots grabbed toys, knocked over blocks, or cut their Barbies’ hair — oh, wait … it was my child who did that (as practice before “trimming” her friend’s bangs). All it took to reset their emotional footing was distraction — manufactured by word or sleight-of-hand. Almost at once, they got back to the business of learning by play.

As they grew older their minds and hearts grew into increasingly complex, interdependent organs. It became harder to “fix” what upset them. The inevitable day came. A daughter spurned my offer to “kiss it better” as she clutched at the reddened skin on her forearm. “That won’t help,” she pouted, her eyes daring me to contradict her. My offer to read her a story elicited the same response.

She was right, of course. A hug or kiss didn’t take away the sting of the injury. A bandage could cover the wound (at least temporarily) and hopefully keep out germs that would otherwise impede healing, but beneath its plain (or decorated) facade, remained a wound that required time — and the right circumstances — to mend. A kiss of affection, a favorite toy to hold, or a new story to distract might momentarily provide another focal point, but every heartbeat fueled throbbing reminders that all was not well.

It’s the same for grief. Bandages don’t work.

You can't put a bandage on grief to "fix it" or "make it better." Like any wound, it takes time.

You can’t put a bandage on grief to “fix it” or “make it better.” Like any wound, it takes time.

When grief is new (and by “new” I mean the loss occurred within two years — yes, I said years), the bereaved often bruise and scrape their psyches against circumstances of living in the course of everyday survival. Such emotional abrasions include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Significant dates — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries (of both positive and negative events). For many within the first 18 months after a loved one’s death, that day of the week (every week) and that date of the month (every month) feels like ripping off a fresh scab, re-traumatizing survivors.
  • The “business” of death — deeds, accounts, titles, plots, medical bills, insurance … The list of accounts can seem endless for an adult or unfairly incomplete for a child. Making each phone call or office visit is excruciating. Every time I called another provider, I sobbed. Removing my husband’s name from each document felt like erasing him. It felt disloyal. It felt violent. Horrible.
  • Routine “first since” appointments — the dentist, the doctor, the pharmacist, the mechanic, the accountant … Anywhere a person has done business in an ongoing manner, that first visit since the death occurred forces yet another face-to-face bout of admitting a loved one is no longer living. As a new widow, I cried every time. Many forms had boxes to check that offered only the options of single, married, or divorced. I wrote in “widowed” on paper forms. Online forms frustrated me so badly I shrieked at the computer (and I’ve never been a “yeller”). If I checked “married,” they required ongoing contact information no longer applicable, but for a long, long time I refused to consider myself “single,” so that option didn’t work, either.
  • Getting groceries — ugh! Walking through the aisles was awful, awful, awful. “His” foods stood out on the shelves. I couldn’t find things I wanted right in front of me (on rare occasions when I actually knew what I wanted). I couldn’t even remember to consult the list in my hand. The first time I saw THE paramedics from the nearby fire station in the store, oh, how I lost it!

Recently, Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief wrote “grief & the grocery store.” If you want to understand what your grieving friend experiences in the ordeal of getting groceries, please read what she has to say:

http://www.refugeingrief.com/groceries/

You can’t cover your grieving friends’ loss with a bandage. You can’t “fix it” or “make it better.” But you can offer them momentary distraction from their pain by including them in your plans (whether they accept your invitations or not). You can aid them in their healing by acknowledging significant dates, offering to fill out paperwork (or make other business calls), accompanying (or taking) them for routine appointments, and going with them to the store to help them navigate the perils of produce.*

Be with them in their grief. Be patient as they heal.

___

*For an in-depth look at one element of grocery-intensified grief, see my essay Eggplant Elegy” in the online journal Segullah.

 

Lost, Found, and Lost Again–Goodbye, YWBB

Several weeks after my husband died, a friend of a friend suggested I visit a website for young widows. Like me, she’d been widowed not long before, and she’d found it a balm for her wounded, bereaved soul. When our mutual friend mentioned it to me, I balked. How could I — why would I — ever consider putting my most raw, vulnerable feelings “out there” under a made-up user name to converse with strangers in a forum that anyone in the world could read?

(Says the woman whose blog now does just that, but in her own name …)

I resisted the invitation to check out the website, but my friend persisted, insisting it had helped her friend and that it could help me, too. After fending off several promptings from her, I finally typed in the site address. (I figured I’d give it a quick glance so I could tell her I’d done it — so she’d stop asking.)

What I didn’t know then, but quickly learned upon my first look at the site, was that it was FILLED with others who’d suffered their own similar, devastating losses. I believe there were about 17,000 registered users at the time — a staggering number considering I was the only young widow I knew then.  It was one thing for friends and family to reassure me, “You’ll be okay, Teresa. You’ll get through this.” Their words were positive and encouraging and appreciated and … emotionally unbelievable.

How could any of the people in my “real life” know what it meant to suddenly, unexpectedly be “relieved” of 24/7 soul mate caretaking? How could they relate to the weight of being the sole, surviving parent of college and high school students? How could they assure me that things would “be okay” for my kids (and me) while life as we knew it tumbled apart and away in grief and loneliness and shock and a thousand other irrevocable daily changes…

Within seconds — yes, seconds — of my first glance at the Young Widows Bulletin Board (YWBB), I felt the weight of “aloneness” slip from my shoulders. These people were my people, from all walks of life, from just about every corner of the globe. All knew the self-severing pain of losing their other halves. All wore the wounds of widowhood.

They assured me it was okay to cry whenever (and wherever) I needed to. They reminded me I needed to breathe deeply and drink more water to cope with the physical stresses of bereavement. They understood why I couldn’t remember to prepare meals (or eat them), why I got lost driving within my neighborhood, and why simple errands left me sobbing. They shared the same physical cravings for their companions.

With these, my new peers, I was home.

They didn’t tell me to “be happy” for his lack of ongoing suffering or to “be glad” it was quick. They didn’t tell me when I “should” feel this way or that. They didn’t reassure me he was “in a better place,” even when they believed it as firmly as I did. They didn’t minimize his absence by “consolation” that I was “young enough” to marry again.

They acknowledged, and therefore validated, my pain.

In the years since I took that first glance, I grew to know and care about many of “the regulars” and before long I found myself in the role of nurturer for the newly widowed. I’ve met with many of my friends from the site and formed lifelong bonds. In time, I leaned on the YWBB less frequently as I grew and healed and found other sources of solace and support.

But it was always there as an emotional backup.

Until today.

The site recently announced it would forever close as of March 20, 2015. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve frantically poured spare minutes into the painstaking, time consuming process of copying and pasting my archived posts into my personal journal. I’d made a lot of comments over the years, so the process took HOURS. I had about 60 comments to go (out of more than 1300) when at midnight this message appeared:

Young Widows Bulletin Board signs off

It is gone. I knew it was coming, and yet … I mourn anew at its passing.

Worse, far worse, early this morning — between the time I began drafting this post and the time I finished it — a friend joined the ranks of the young widowed. She’s a woman of great faith; please offer a prayer (or two or more) in behalf of my friend and her family. My heart hurts for her (and for her children) and I want to — I wish I could — walk her gently to the place of my now-missing lifeline. 

There are other sites available now, and I’m sure they will offer complete camaraderie and sustaining support, too. But they won’t be the same.

___
(By the way, Cynthia and Eileen, thanks again for your kind, well-aimed nudges toward what became a source of strength and encouragement when I so badly needed it.)

#DearMe–Be Kind

In celebration of International Women’s Day, YouTube asked women everywhere to share what advice they’d give their younger selves if they could go back in time.

As I pondered the question, one phrase shoved all others aside, time and again.

Be kind.

Be kind to your friends, and be kind to strangers. Be kind to people you don’t like. Be kind to people having a good time around you. Be kind — even kinder — to those having rough times.

If someone’s hurting, be kind.

And while you’re at it, be kind to yourself, too.

Do kind things. Say kind words.

Be kind.